1937 – April 17, 2016
Raised in Charleston, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi
Known for his strong voice and initiative, Willie (Wazir – in Arabic roughly meaning someone who helps someone carry a burden) Peacock was a key figure in SNCC’s organizing work in rural Mississippi. He grew up in Charleston, Mississippi, one county over from where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. “Living in Mississippi and under those oppressive conditions as a youth,” Peacock explained, his involvement in the Movement “was always just a part of my upbringing.”
When Willie Peacock was twelve, financial difficulties forced his family to move from Charleston to a nearby plantation to sharecrop. “I got a chance to see what slavery was probably like and [felt] like,” he explained. And indeed, some of the families on that plantation could trace their roots back to the days of slavery.” His father was active in political organizing, but Peacock didn’t know that until later. “He was just kind of tutoring me all the time, but I didn’t realize it. And so it was in me to get involved.”
Peacock ran away from the plantation twice, and his family decided to move back to Charleston where he was able to attend school. After high school he enrolled in Rust College in Holly Springs, where he met SNCC field secretary Frank Smith. Peacock and Smith started taking people to register to vote. They’d explain to them how the vote was essential to accessing everything from education to housing to paved roads. “So we really got rolling hitting these churches on Sundays and going door to door knocking on these doors in Holly Spring,” Peacock remembered. Their efforts gained them the reputation as the “two lil’ Black FBIs.”
Amzie Moore, a friend of Peacock’s father (both men were Prince Hall Masons), and Bob Moses heard about Peacock’s work in Holly Springs and recruited him to become part of SNCC’s voter registration efforts in Greenwood. He joined Sam Block in that small Delta city in 1962. Gaining local people’s trust in the early days was not easy. Black Mississippians lived in a constant state of fear and registering to vote meant risking their livelihoods or lives. But Peacock and Block persisted, continuing to knock on doors, although many were slammed in their face, and defying white Greenwood police. “They knew we were Mississippians, and to see us facing up to them and standing up to them, they couldn’t understand what had happened, what had gone wrong,” Peacock remembered. Eventually, “the people stepped out on faith.”
On March 6, 1963, Peacock, Block, and two others were traveling in a SNCC vehicle when gunfire punched 27 holes in the car. Peacock jumped out of the vehicle and began throwing bricks at the car that had attacked them as it sped away. They later discovered that a local policeman, who worked with one of the women in the car, had fired at them.
“Black empowerment, I think, was where we were coming from all the time,” Peacock explained years later, “because, at the time, in the South, Blacks had no power at all.” Although proud of the changes he helped bring about, Peacock was disappointed in how much remained to be done. But like many in SNCC, he continued to struggle to effect that change.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Radical Equations, Civil Rights From Mississippi to the Algebra Project (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
Interview with Wazir (Willie) Peacock by Bruce Hartford, July, 2001, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.